Robotics are playing an increasingly prominent part of our lives. Their growing ubiquity has meant that we now see robots undertaking tasks from delivering items, to cleaning floors. Now, one of the most important roles in society may be being placed in the shiny hands of a robot. Get ready to say hello to a real life Robocop.
Everybody knows Robocop. Thirty years on, the character is so comfortably nestled within the cultural zeitgeist that even those unfamiliar with the nuances of the Peter Weller-starring classic (or the inferior remake), find Murphy’s leaden-footed law enforcer easily recognisable.
This, it seems, is especially applicable to authorities in Dubai, who have launched a government program that introduces a mechanical man-in-blue to the streets of the city. So, what will Robocop’s role entail, and will we ever hear it say, ‘Dead or alive, you’re coming with me’?
I’d buy that for a dollar
First: no, Robocop won’t be armed, so we can breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, the robot, who was created by the warmly-monikered PAL Robotics, patrols busy parts of the city — like shopping malls — and is capable of an impressive number of law-enforcement features.
For example, the life-size, wheel-mounted Robocop is equipped with a touchscreen as well as cameras and facial recognition technology. The touch screen works as a sophisticated complaints board for concerned citizens. If a shopper sees somebody pilfering a packet of chewing gum they can, in theory, dob them in using the touchpad. It also offers citizens the chance to pay off traffic violations.
If this makes the robot sound less Robocop and more Roboadminassistant, then the facial recognition technology hints at something, for want of a better word, cooler. By using this technology, Robocop can assist in catching criminals by scanning and comparing faces with a police database, with any matches being flagged to police HQ.
Its camera, meanwhile, can pick up vehicle license plates and its video feed can help police keep a close eye on suspicious activity — a left-behind bag at a train station, for example.
Perhaps most adorably, Robocop can be spoken with and even offer compliments, which is somewhat different to its big screen counterpart, whose main method of addressing crims was usually via gunfire or by calling them ‘creep.’
End of watch?
While it’s easy to take enjoyment from seeing life mirror art, Robocop’s introduction into the world of law enforcement again raises the most pressing question about robotics and automation: will it take jobs away from humans?
In some robotics-related cases the answer would be an emphatic no. A robotic hoover, for example, probably hasn’t demonstrably harmed the job prospects of cleaning staff. Robocop, on the other hand, may prove the naysayers right.
Should the initial trial of Robocop go well, the Dubai government wants 25 per cent of its police force to be made up of robots by 2030. In the same timeframe, there are plans for an entirely smart police station, devoid of human officers.
Whether this will harm job prospects for Dubai-based law enforcers could be debated, and there are other, more complex issues to take into account too. The fictional Robocop acted violently in the name of the supposed greater good (until, at least, conspiracy was revealed), and while it’s unlikely to be as dramatic as Paul Verhoeven’s vision, the use of a real-life Robocop to apprehend criminals could be a slippery slope.
This has been argued by people like Alan Winfield, Professor of Robot Ethics at the University of the West of England, who told CNN that it would be extremely difficult to ensure that a robot wouldn’t harm people. He also asked how one would make the robot accountable, if harm did befall the accused.
A person can stand trial, for example. What would happen to the robot? Discontinuation? It is a more complex matter than simply gearing up a robot police officer and asking him to help bust some thieves.
Indeed, robotics both promise a great deal while frequently posing difficult questions that must be addressed. For now, we’re probably safe with the complementary, touchscreen cop wheeling around Dubai’s busier districts.
In the future, however, Dubai’s robot may need to answer these difficult questions. Let’s hope it’s more Robocop than ED-209.